My Dad died in 1990. He stumbled out of the bathroom and fell over, and that was that. It was quite prosaic and out of the blue, in as much as a third heart attack can be said to be out of the blue.
You’d think there’d be a straighforward answer to the question, “When did you last see your father?” It sounds a bit zero-sum: it either was the last time, or it wasn’t. There is no in between. But the answer, like reality, is a bit more subtle.
The first last time I saw my father: A week earlier he had asked me to strip the paint off the house sign on the front gate. I had grudingly, half-heartedly set to work with solvent and wire wool. “Leave solvent to work”, the packet said, and so I had – and had completely forgotten to come back and clean it off. So when Dad came to me and said, “That job on the house sign I asked you to do…”, I fully expected a lecture on the value of completing a task and doing it properly. Instead, he just said, “That was a good job. Well done.”
Later that night, after they’d taken his shell away in an ambulance, I ran into his workshop, fighting to hold back the tears. I saw the house sign resting on the worktop, shiny and clean. The tears came, and there was absolutely nothing I could do about anything.
The second last time I saw my father: His shell was lying on a gurney in a small anteroom in the hospital. He looked impossibly large. Heavy. I spoke to him then but, deep down, I knew he wasn’t there and I was alone. As desperately as I wanted to, I could not bring myself to kiss him. Death is contagious.
The third last time I saw my father: He has been dead for two months. We are at some kind of hotel reception in the 1970s. Dark furnishings and smoked glass partitions everywhere. Mood lighting but no windows. Waiters circulate with wine. I walk down the steps to join him, and he turns from some other guests he is entertaining to greet me. The dress code is black tie, and he looks younger and fitter than he has in years. We talk about nothings, as I marvel at the enormous buffet. He is happy, charming and relaxed. He is my Dad. And then I am awake.
If I have ever dreamed about him since, it has always been in the context of childhood, a flashback to when he was still alive. Just that once, though, I saw him again. It’s not important whether anything that had been him was ‘there’ or not. What matters is that I saw him, and it felt real to me. That’s all we can ever say about each other, every day.